Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Odds, Madness and Triumph: The Life of Karen Horney

When New York psychoanalyst Fritz Wittels published a bitter article against one of the members of the New York Psychoanalytic Society in 1940, his expectations were not only to vindicated Sigmund Freud's theories, but also to discredit Dr. Horney's reputation. He viewed her "As a threat with pending disintegration who with one sweeping gesture refuted most of the fundamentals of psychoanalysis and wrote a book in a demagogic style with the result that forty years of patient scientific work were thrown to the dogs" (Quinn 1987:13). No need to mention that Mr. Wittels' letter provoked such a controversy within the psychoanalysis society that Dr. Horney was removed from her supervisory role there. What Mr. Wittels never imagined was that Karen Horney's doctrine about Freud's theories was about to open the door for a new wave of rebellious female psychologists whose theories have gained more recognition since the explosion of female movements in the 70's and the 80's. It was because of Dr. Horney's heroic opposition to the sexism expressed by Freud's ideas of human psychoanalysis (based on patriarchal elements) that most of the new theories about women's cognitive and social behavior started to flourish. In fact, some of the firsts psychological analyses directed exclusively to women were written by Horney with titles such as "The Flight from Womanhood," in 1926, "Inhibited Femininity," in 1926, "Distrust Between the Sexes" in 1931, "The Dread of Woman," in 1932, and a collection of her papers was published in 1967 as "Feminine Psychology" (McHenry 1980:198). There are no doubts why Dr. Horney became one of the fundamental names in the field of female psychology, and one of the firsts icons of the feminist movements.

It's a Hard Knock Life

Karen Horney was born in a small village called Blankenese, about twelve miles west of Hamburg on the north bank of the Elbe, Germany, as Karen Clementina Theodora Danielsen on September 16, 1885 (Rubins 1978:5). Her parents were of Dutch-Norwegian origins, and represented the typical European family which revered the principles and values of the Victorian times. Her father, Berndt Wackels Danielsen, was a ship's captain who used to deliver commands not only at the ocean but also at home. "He had a look of self-confidence, of command, the look of someone who has mastered not only the elements but his peers as well; his blue eyes could be frightening" Karen Horney recalled (7-8). He had four kids (all males) from a previous marriage, and two more with Karen's mother. Karen was his only daughter and the youngest of all his kids, a "privilege" not desirable in those days since being a female and also being the youngest sibling was a certain condition to predict future repression. Karen's mother, Clotilde, was eighteen years younger than Berndt but in the "right age" for a woman to marry. In late 1800's, marriage was a necessity for all women who were not going to become nuns or life long care takers of their mothers (some of the few ways "to escape" marriage, if we can call it that way). Berndt and the kids used to call Clotilde, "Sonni," at home where she quietly remained a freethinker regardless of all the impositions of the society and her husband's. Patriarchy walked step by step to the ethics of Victorian times which also commanded total rendition to religious beliefs. Berndt certainly knew how to apply these values at home. Being a religious man, or "harshly religious" better said, the Bible was the only book he allowed Karen to read once she learned how to do it. Although absent most of the time, Berndt used to read the Bible every time he was in town along with his wife and kids. As Karen recalled "He was a Bible thrower" because every time they misspelled a word or could not remember a particular passage, Berndt hit them on the head with the Bible (Rubins 1978:11).

Depression Arrived

By the time Karen was nine years old, she became more rebellious and uneasy to ward religion, social expectations, and gender roles. She could not understand why her father seemed to prefer her brother, named Berndt after him, over her. She certainly knew he was a "boy," proof enough to constitute a difference between the two sexes, but she could not understand why she was treated as if she was "less" than him instead of being equally important. She could not understand why the Bible declares that women were a secondary creation from man, the cause of temptation, and a source of evil. What she did understand was the first source of her depressions which came from an infatuation she developed toward her own brother, Berndt. Apparently, Karen was assigned by her father to take care of her older brother's needs which included keep his room clean, organize his clothes and some other duties that were performed by Sonni who was too busy taken care of the whole house without help. In some way, her childish mind developed an attraction toward her brother. This could have been the result of mental associations of what she had seen between her mother and her father and the duties she was performing for her brother. After all she was doing to her brother almost the same things her mother (a wife) did to her father (a husband). Once her brother found out about her feelings, he overreacted and pushed her away from him. This particular episode in Karen's life was very influential, and triggered a life long battle with depression. Karen loved profoundly, felt emotions profoundly and was devastated profoundly by rejection, whether real or conjured from within the depths of her exquisitely sensitive spirit (Rubins 1978:16).

Unconfirmed Stories and Education

Although Karen's father was a very authoritarian man, one of the most remarkable episodes of her life focuses ironically in her trips through South America with him. Berndt took his daughter several times to cross the Atlantic in his usually long and dangerous voyages, something very unusual for a captain to do in those days. Karen surely was the only female on board alongside dozens of "tough-talking" sailors which makes the story incredible since a ship was not a good place for a female to be, and even worse for a nine year old girl. Whether it was a good or bad place, Karen seemed to have enjoyed such experiences when she told one of her daughter that she saw and tasted bananas for the first time during those trips. However, these stories are not supported by her memories or any other document of her life, reason enough to doubt that such voyages were really made (Quinn 1987:36).

What really was documented was her educational process. Karen's mother, Sonni, was very skeptical at the beginning when Karen told her that "between being pretty and smart, I choose to be smart" (Rubins 1978:14). Sonni knew that higher education was only allowed to women who were about to become teachers or educators, the only fields where women were permitted to develop professional careers. However, Sonni realized that without a solid education, her daughter would be condemned to the same fate she was going through, so she decided to support her desires. It was not a hard decision since Karen demonstrated a natural tendency to read, and proved herself a quick learner surpassing some of the advanced kids of her classes. The problems began when Karen was twelve years old and expressed her desires to go further in her education. Her father absolutely disapproved of this plan because he considered it a waste of money (tuition charges were too high for him to pay), and basically because most children in Hamburg did not go to school beyond age fourteen (Rubin 1978:17). But Karen was strongly determined to continue her education and get a degree in medicine especially after she read some misogynist articles such as "Why I Hate Women" by Nietzsche and "Princess Ida" by W. S. Gilbert, both written in an offensive way sub-estimating women's intellectual capabilities. Once she reached eighteen, she developed a plan which consisted of accepting a teaching career for three years in order to be able to pay by herself the tuition for medical school.

She moved to Freiburg, Gottingen, and Berlin studying medicine in these universities and earning a M.D. degree in 1911 (McHenry 1980: 197). But since German universities were the last in Europe to accept females in medical studies, Horney found out that her father was not the only odd she had to face. These universities finally opened their doors for females in medicine because medicine was associated with care giving (an assumed female trait) and because women were protesting for the right of being "checked out" by another female instead of male doctors (especially when treating issues related to the genitals). She also realized that being "too girlish" or "too feminine" while attending medical school was a sure trait for rejection. She then decided to quit her girlish manners and become, as much as possible, one of the boys (Quinn 1987: 98). Horney had to confront everyday challenges by her male colleagues who some times failed to see "the doctor" on her and only saw "a woman." Driven by this vision, most of them tried to challenge her intelligence and capabilities as a doctor, looking for her weakest spot or a minimal mistake to prove her wrong.

Horney spent several years practicing her new profession, and it was during this time that she started to be intrigued by mental diseases, the intrinsic human mind, and the psychoanalysis. During her years in medical school, Horney met a strikingly handsome young lawyer called Oskar Horney. Oskar was a charming, well spoken, and radiant man who attracted Horney's attention for the very beginning. They married in 1909, before Horney's graduation, and procreated three daughters named Renate, Marianne, and Brigitte Horney. However, even before her first pregnancy, Horney was already exhausted by the combination of her medical studies and her housekeeping chores which created a burdensome very hard for her to handle.

Yet, the events that really stroke Horney's life at this point were the death of family members. Her father died of typhoid fever without being able to see her for the last time. Then Sonni died shortly after Horney's first baby was born. This mixture of sadness and happiness provoked her deep-seated emotional problems that were filling her life with traumas. Also her life with Oskar was not too different from that one her mother had with Horney's father. Oskar revealed to be as harsh and authoritarian as Horney's father was. She felt depressed, chronically tired and lethargic (Rubins 1978:37). Like if these contrasting events were not enough, her beloved brother, Berndt, passed away victim of pulmonary infection in 1923, the same year that Oskar was diagnosed with meningitis and his business was declared "in deep troubles" (Quinn 1987:191).

Completing an Uncompleted Work

By 1913 Horney started to visit a psychoanalysts called Karl Abraham persuaded by one of her friends, Karl Muller-Braunschweig. Karl Abraham was a close associate and disciple of Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist who popularized the term "psychoanalysis." Muller-Braunschweig and Horney were classmates in the neuro-psychiatric clinic of Professor Herman Oppenheim where both students were extraordinarily interested in the relationship between neurosis and psychoanalysis. Horney also felt that by attending some sessions with Dr. Abraham she could be able to handle much better her personal ambivalence (Rubins 1978:38). Yet, what she accomplished was a total fascination with Freud's theories of the human mind. Horney began to investigate euphorically about psychoanalysis finding endless connections between what Freud have said and her own experiences in life. Until she met theories such as "Penis Envy" and "Oedipus Complex." Her admiration for Freud's work suffered a strike when she realized that his theories were exclusively made to explain male's cases and completely ignored the female's (or misrepresented them). Being herself a good case study, she could not understand why Freud did not include female's cases in his theories and reduced them to a mere derivation of male's psychology.

From that point, Horney started to work in what could be called the completion of Freud theories. She refused to believe that people are "instinctively driven," and that libido and death instinct in the psyche are what mainly composed our human life disregarding compulsiveness, moral values, environmental factors and sexual differences between males and females. She did recognize that some women may experience "Penis Envy" as a result of some sort of neurosis, but she emphasized that this term cannot be apply to every single female being, and that the whole Freudian theory was very pessimistic towards both males and females (Quinn 1987:212-13). Her public rejection to these important Freudian theories gained her enemies within the Psychoanalytic Society in New York which in 1941 removed her from her position as supervisor-instructor. She shortly founded the Association for the advancement of Psychoanalysis, through both of which broad research into new aspects of psychoanalysis was fostered (McHenry 1980:198). Horney also developed one of the best theories of neurosis based on her constant reasoning of it which she explained in this way: "Our better understanding of neuroses has taught us that the so-called neurotic `symptoms,' such as phobias, depressions, fatigue, and impotence, can be absent altogether; that neurosis may merely consist in character trends of a particular nature, the sum total of which interferes with the individual's proper functioning under given external conditions and thereby interferes with his/her happiness" (Paris 2000: 217).In 1926, Horney finally left Oskar's house and started a life of her own. In 1930, she moved with her three daughters to the U.S. choosing Brooklyn as the best place to start over. In 1937 she and Oskar were legally divorced and her career as psychoanalyst began to take off. After the odious incident in the Psychoanalytic Society of New York, Horney seemed to have gained strength to promoted awareness towards the role of social and cultural pressures in the genesis of neurosis (McHenry 1980:198). She died peacefully in her sleep on December 4, 1952 after saying to her daughters that she was very content to be leaving. In Germany her old friend and classmate, Karl Muller-Braunschweig, canceled his work and classes for a day of mourning. Most people agree that her three daughters represented Horney in her many variations: the mother and searcher, the artist and poet, the humanist and psychoanalyst but most of all, the completeness in herself.(Rubins1978:338).


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